Patent types

There are 3 main types of patents:

A utility patent basically involves a product's use and usually prohibits others from making, using or selling it for 20 years. About 90% of patent documents issued in recent years by the Patent and Trademark Office are utility patents, also known as patents for invention.

A design patent basically involves how a product looks and is issued for the new, original and ornamental design embodied in or applied to a product. It permits its owner to exclude others from making, using or selling the design for 15 years from the date the patent was issued if it was filed on or after Dec. 18, 2013. Those filed before that date have a term of 14 years.

A plant patent is issued for a new and distinct, invented or discovered asexually reproduced plant. The patent is good for 20 years.

For more information, go to www.uspto.gov.

Amy Looney made a necklace one day in March with a small map of New York City inside a pendant.

If you go

The inventors forum sponsored by SCORE's coastal chapter meets the last Wednesday of every month at 9 a.m. in the Edisto Room, C-201, in the Lonnie Hamilton III Building at 4045 Bridge View Drive in North Charleston. Visit www.score285.org

The first time the North Charleston resident wore it, co-workers and friends asked her where she got it. So she made a few others, specific to the towns where her acquaintances lived, and handed them out.

Seeing how popular they were, she decided to start making them to sell, and a new business, Filanthropi Market, was born at www.FilanthropiMarket.com.

Chiropractor Dawn Sykes of North Charleston works on people's necks and backs but realized there was no mannequin to practice on. So, she sketched one out and created the sounds to mimic actual adjustments. She's even been approached by someone to buy her product, though she hasn't made the prototype yet.

"I wouldn't know what to charge," she said. She also wondered how to protect her idea.

Cindy Ellsworth started making coasters a few years back with a couple of employees and now has expanded to a larger location on Johns Island with seven workers.

Now, she wants to patent the process she uses and wants to know how to go about it.

They're among the Charleston area inventors who once a month show up at SCORE forums in North Charleston to learn how to start a business, get funding and secure legal rights to their products.

During a recent inventors forum sponsored for free by the business-mentoring group, many in attendance wanted to know about licensing, patents, trademarks and copyright laws.

Looney wanted to make sure she wasn't infringing on copyright laws by using pieces of maps in pendants.

"As long as you change the original concept and make it your own, you should be OK," said Terry McDaniel, a Charleston patent attorney who led the sesssion.

Sykes has a provisional patent on her mannequins that she believes physical therapists and others could use, too, but she wanted to know more about the licensing process.

Ellsworth wanted to know more about the process as well for her Carolina Coasters business on Maybank Highway. (www.carolinacoaster.com.)

"If we patent the process, it will lend more value to the company," Ellsworth said.

She's not looking to immediately sell the business, which has now expanded to Chapel Hill, N.C., and Richmond, Va., through the Southern Season gourmet retailer, but she wants to be ready if and when the time comes.

"You want it to be as attractive as possible," Ellsworth said.

The attorney agreed.

"To be patentable, it has to have the ability to be novel," McDaniel said.

He advised that inventors do as much of the writing and provide as much information as possible when they try to license their products. If not, they will end up paying an attorney to fill in the blanks for them. And McDaniel recommended that inventors hire an attorney to help steer them through the legal requirements.

Pitching ideas

The forum was created to give inventors a place to pitch their ideas and get free feedback, said Joe Conti of SCORE's coastal chapter. Typically, from three to a dozen people show up each month at the meetings in North Charleston.

"We have people come in and talk about their ideas, and if it makes a lot of sense and they want to continue working on it, we will help them come up with a business plan or if they need help finding vendors to make things for them," Conti said.

There have been three or four ideas to emerge that have been marketable, he said.

"Most people come, and they don't come back," Conti said. "They find out it's a little more involved or they have an idea that won't work, or by the time they finish they talk themselves out of it. The first thing I tell them is, 'Let's do a patent search. You may find all kinds of things out there.' Some people get a patent and then find there is no market for it."

Sites to help with patent searches include www.USPTO.gov or www.WIPO.int. Searches should be done nationally and internationally.

The most common patent is a utility patent or invention patent. Generally issued for a product and its use, it's good for 20 years and subject to maintenance fees.

Design patents are issued for the look of a product. Plant patents relate to botany.

Depending on the complexity of the product, Conti said, it could take up to a year or more to take an idea from inception to market.

"You have an idea, make a drawing, find someone to make parts for it, then put it together and sell it," he said. "You also can't tell too many people about it because you could hurt yourself patent-wise."

SCORE, formerly the Service Corps of Retired Executives, and its team of volunteers, usually retired professionals, offer more than an inventors forum once a month. The agency helps aspiring entrepreneurs navigate through the process of starting a business at no cost and offers low-cost seminars from time to time hosted by professionals in different fields.

Feedback

Looney, who makes the map necklaces, said the group's advice is invaluable. Getting the free counsel from the attorney to change the maps and make them her own design helped steer her away from possible legal quandaries.

"I'm glad I went," she said. "It helped a lot."

The former real estate broker started a fair trade jewelry business a while back. She bought wholesale and sold retail, and called it Filanthropi Market, because part of the proceeds in orders over $50 go to select charities such as A21 Campaign, Water Missions International, World Vision and Samaritan's Purse.

"More than anything, I want it to look good," Looney said. "When somebody puts it on, I want them to say, 'That's pretty.' And if we are giving something back to charity, I feel even better."

As for Ellsworth, her business has sold 40,000 coasters featuring Charleston attractions and restaurants in the past four years.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.